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April 5, 2010, 12:43 p.m.

Is print still king? Has online made a move? Updating a controversial post

A year ago, in a Nieman Journalism Lab post that garnered 88 comments and still has viral life out there, I maintained that just three percent of newspaper content consumption happens online; the rest of it happens the old fashioned way, by people reading ink on dead trees. Given the continuing attention being paid to that conclusion (it was cited just last month by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, in testimony to the Federal Trade Commission), let’s revisit the numbers and see whether anything has changed.

With updates or improved data on at least some of the numbers, the general conclusions still hold: U.S. newspapers have not pushed much of their audience to their websites, nor have they followed the migration of their readership to the web. Their combined print and online readership metrics, whether measured in pageviews or in time spent, show that there’s been significant attrition since last year in the total audience for newspaper content, and that the fraction of that audience consuming newspaper content online remains in the low-to-mid single digits.

Here’s how I arrived at the numbers this year (to follow this more closely, or check my math, you can view my worksheet here):

Point of comparison: Pageviews

First, a comparison of pageviews in print and pageviews online. In print, I projected pageviews for newspaper content by taking the 2008 paid circulation reported by the Newspaper Association of America, adjusting it by the average of the two six-month circulation loss figures reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (March, September), and multiplying the resulting 2009 circulation by 2.128 readers per copy for weekdays and 2.477 for Sundays. (This is a 2007 Scarborough Research (PDF link) number I used last year also, but readers per copy has been a very consistent figure with little variation for decades.) This yielded total readership for weekdays and Sundays. I then made the same (discussable) assumption as last year: that the average reader of a newspaper issue looks at 24 pages, which means there is a total of 70.602 billion printed newspaper pageviews per month. That’s down almost 19 percent from last year’s 87.1 billion pages viewed. To be fair, my audience numbers last year were also based on that 2007 Scarborough data, so that’s really a two-year decline. (Jim Conaghan, research director at the NAA, tells me they have no data on the number of printed pages readers look at on average, and that there is no update to the 2007 readers-per-copy study.)

For online pageviews, NAA offers a precise number based on research by Nielsen Online. Nielsen’s methodology changed in June 2009, so I’ve used the average of the nine months from June 2009 to February 2010, which was 3.382 billion online newspaper site pageviews per month. So for print and online combined, we have a total of 73.985 billion pageviews (versus 90.3 billion last year). In other words, as measured in pageviews, 95.43 percent of total readership for newspaper content was in print; 4.57 percent of it was online. So while it appears that the online fraction has grown from 3.5 percent in the previous analysis, the bad news is that the total content exposure has dropped by about one fifth.

Point of comparison: Time on site

Some commenters to last year’s post maintained that print and online pageviews weren’t comparable. And certainly, the current wisdom says that pageviews and unique visitors don’t count nearly as much as “engagement” as measured by time spent on site as well as interaction with content. So, as I did last year, let’s look at time spent — both in print and online, print engagement versus online engagement with the newspaper content:

For the print side of the ledger, I began with the readership counts derived as above, and assumed average time spent with printed newspapers to be 25 minutes on weekdays and 35 minutes on Sundays. Now, this assumption got considerable comment flak last year, and no doubt will have its doubters this year. For those who say “I don’t know anybody who reads a newspaper at all, so how can the average be 25 minutes?” let me say that more than 40 million newspapers are still sold every day and someone is reading them, whether you know them or not. Anecdotally, half the people I see at Amy’s in Brattleboro are spending more time that that just with the New York Times. But let’s avoid the anecdotal evidence — here’s (PDF link) some U.S. Statistical Abstract data on time spent with various media, sourced from Veronis Suhler. It claims that the average person in 2009 spent 159 hours a year with newspapers (including newspaper websites), which is 26.1 minutes a day. While this tends to support the controversial pass-along factor, it’s for the average (adult) person. Since only about half the population actually reads printed newspapers (on average per day), that would mean newspaper readers spend an average of 52 minutes a day — which just strikes me as way too high. So I’m going to stick with the happy medium of 25 minutes weekdays and 35 on Sundays until someone can improve that data. (As an additional data point: According an NAA print newspaper “engagement” study (PDF link) presented a few years ago, on weekdays 45 percent of readers spent more than 30 minutes, 34 percent between 16 and 30 minutes, 21 percent under 15 minutes. Higher times were reported for Sunday editions.)

That yields total time spent with printed newspapers of 78.471 billion minutes per month. The online side is easy: averaging the last 9 months of NAA data, we get time spent at newspaper websites of 2.535 billion minutes per month. And combining print and online time spent, we have a total of 81.006 billion minutes per month spent with newspaper content. The engagement measure, therefore, says that 96.87 percent of time spent with newspaper content was in print; 3.13 percent of time spent was online. This is almost exactly the same as last year, when I found that 3.0 percent of time spent was online. But printed newspapers have lost a big chunk of total engagement as well: this year’s numbers are down 18.9 percent from last year’s analysis, which, again, really is a two-year drop of about one-fifth, with the loss occurring on the print side.

The conclusion that the overwhelming share of newspapers’ audience remains on the print side of the ledger is supported by Scarborough’s 2008 ratings of what it called the “Integrated Newspaper Audience” (PDF link) in selected markets. Measuring the cumulative 5-day audience rather than daily averages, that data showed that the incremental audience at newspaper websites added only a few percentage points to their print reach.

NAA and Nielsen are clear that their pageviews and time-spent stats since June 2009 can’t be compared with earlier months because of methodology changes, so I’ll refrain from doing that; but clearly the print/online audience split was enormously skewed last year and remains so — and most importantly, the online side is not growing. Back in June, NAA reported 3.469 billion pageviews and 2.701 billion minutes spent; in January (to avoid the short month of February), there were 3.452 billion pageviews and 2.485 billion minutes spent. Time spent per unique visitor has fallen gradually from 38:24 minutes in June to 33:09 minutes in January. In other words, while newspapers are losing readership on the print side, that disappearing audience is not following them online; at best, the online audience for newspaper content is static.

The purpose of this analysis is not to compare all “offline” news consumption with all online news consumption; it is to dissect the newspaper content audience. But as several commenters noted last year, this really means that as the audience moves online, it is getting most of its news from non-newspaper sites.

Beyond examining the split between readers of printed and online newspaper content, I also noted in another post last year that newspaper websites attracted less than one percent of all U.S. web traffic — 0.69 percent of pageviews and 0.56 percent of time spent, to be precise, in June 2009. Updating those stats with February 2010 Nielsen Online data (also detailed in the spreadsheet linked above), over the last nine months newspapers have actually lost share in both pageviews and time spent: pageview share dropped to 0.63 percent, and time spent dropped to 0.50 percent of total web traffic.

Meanwhile at newspapers, much effort and much dialogue continues to focus on getting readers to pay for content and battling aggregators — energy that might better be spent figuring out how not to lose the sizeable remaining audience for newspaper content, not by “protecting print” but by keeping the current print readers in the fold as they, too, gradually migrate to reading news online.

POSTED     April 5, 2010, 12:43 p.m.
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